The United States of Sexism: A Reality Check

Susan Fowler opens up her now infamous blog, and begins to type: “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” She details a laundry list of bad behavior from Uber execs, ranging from being propositioned for sex by her manager to being reprimanded for reporting the infraction to HR. It’s not just the tech companies that are flailing under pressure. Sterling Jewelers, parent company of Kay and Jared Jewelry stores, is currently facing a class-action suit filed by 69,000 female employees, alleging harassment, sexual bias, wage discrimination and being unfairly passed over for promotions. As rampant allegations continue to surface, it’s clear that gender inequity is not reserved to any one industry.

With International Women’s Day upon us, let’s take a quick look at key wins in the recent decades:

  • 1974 — Employers can no longer justify paying women lower wages “simply because men would not work at the low rates paid women.” (Corning Glass Works v. Brennan)
  • 1978 — Employment discrimination against pregnant women is banned (The Pregnancy Discrimination Act)
  • 1986 — Sexual harassment becomes a form of illegal job discrimination. (Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson)
  • 2009 — Victims of pay discrimination are allowed to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck. (Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act)

Why are cases like Fowler’s so relevant?

Because women are still struggling to be treated as equals in the workplace. How is it that, in 2017, women are paid on average only 80% of what men are banking? And why, globally, are women filling only 24 percent of leadership positions and 12 percent of board member seats when they represent half of the labor force in developed countries? And, doesn’t it seem problematic that only 4 percent of CEO’s in the United States, including those for Fortune 500 companies, are women?

There is a problem at a cultural level.

Managers are sexist. Human Resources policies fail to promote equity. Women are undervalued. And the cycle repeats itself. Even the companies that are trying to promote diversity are getting it wrong. Magic Leap, a prominent VR startup, is currently being sued by Tannen Campbell, the woman hired to help with what the firm called it’s “pink-blue problem”. Campbell was fired after challenging CEO Rony Abovitz about the deeply misogynistic culture prevalent among the all-male team.

Newsflash to corporate bigwigs and the majority male boards that govern them: Gender diversity is in. And it pays off.

Firms who employ 30 percent female executives accumulate as much as 6 percent more in profits. Think about it. If you’re raking in $500 million a year, that’s an extra 30 million, just for being equitable. Why, then, aren’t companies hiring female executives in droves? Because employing a diversity and inclusion program that actually works is a daunting task. Many companies want to move in the right direction, hiring chief diversity officers or inclusion specialists, attempting to fill gender quotas and creating internal business resource groups for women. But eventually the band-aid peels off. Why? Because corporations aren’t addressing the root causes of discrimination, and so, cannot begin to tackle the problem in a holistic way.

In terms of solutions, senior leadership advocacy is key.

Take Intel’s Diversity in Technology initiative, which looks to achieve full-representation of women and minority groups by 2020, and CEO Brian Krzanich is the driving force behind the program. And he must be, if it is to succeed. IPG, led by Michael Roth, ties CEO performance to inclusivity objectives, ensuring that diversity, throughout the pipeline of hiring and promotion, is a value promoted from the top-down. But, it still stands that companies like Intel and IPG are exceptions, not the rule. Progress is slow, and results are inconsistent.

Women can only feel truly integrated into the fabric of the workplace if there is real sponsorship from the top. This comes in the form of equal growth opportunity, equal pay for equal work, maximized career options, matching objectives, and mutually beneficial relationships. The kind of support that leaves no space for misogynistic attitudes to surface. The end result? A more productive, connected, and profitable workforce.

In the meantime, we clearly have more work to do.

Lisa Wang (below, left) is a serial entrepreneur and the Co-founder of SheWorx, the global collective of ambitious female entrepreneurs redefining leadership. Recognized as the leading female entrepreneur event series, SheWorx has reached over 20,000 women, providing access to top investors, mentors, and actionable business strategies to build and scale successful companies. Lisa is a former Olympic-level gymnast, 4x US National Champion, and U.S. Hall of Fame Inductee. She was named CIO’s “Top 20 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2017” and was featured on Forbes Leadership for the resilience and tenacity she brings from her athletic training to the SheWorx mission. She is a former Wall Street hedge fund analyst and a graduate of Yale University.